The Middle East at a Crossroads: The Eurasian Rising Powers are Redrawing the Global Landscape

On October 5, 2017, King Salman met with President Putin to the surprise of many observers who speculated about this historic visit. According to some analysts, it is a shift towards Russia at the expense of the US where the focus is on talks about the on-going oil crisis and the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. These speculations are understandable since one of the US’ most reliable Arab allies is meeting the “enemy” on its turf. Such a visit holds a particular significance. What does it mean for the Middle East and the Eurasian rising powers?

To answer this question, let’s first have a look at the Saudi situation. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is on shaky grounds both domestically and internationally. Indeed, the Al Saud-Wahhabi alliance is under considerable strain, torn between openness and conservatism due to different factors. The oil crisis has magnified the rift and has shed light on the fragility of the Saudi economy that relies heavily on its oil royalties (70% of the government’s revenue according to World Population Review). In addition to this over-reliance on external revenue sources, the unemployment rate is on the rise (12.1% at the end of 2016 as reported by Forbes). The unemployment rate is especially high among the younger generation (33.5% in 2015 according to Arabian Business); a generation that is globally connected despite the government’s efforts to censor the Internet by different means (the KSA scored 72 out of 100 -100 meaning that it is not free at all- on Internet Freedom in 2016 as presented by Freedom House). Finally, social media are pushing Saudi society towards more social changes whether the government is ready or not, as their society’s composition is showing a high rate of young people both for now and for the future (26.56% 0-14, 18.85% 15-24 and 46.4% 25-54 as of 2016 according to Index Mundi). All these factors are the main ingredients for an explosive domestic cocktail.

Simultaneously, the KSA is bogged down in the war with Yemen, a war that is becoming a humanitarian crisis. The Kingdom is having a tug of war with Iran. The pro- and anti-Western camps are tearing the country apart each time they are not satisfied by the latest news from the new US direction driven by an unpredictable Trump (even though Trump made a point by making his first trip abroad to the KSA where he was received as royalty). On top of these issues, the latest diplomatic crisis with Qatar in June 2017 has exacerbated the Qatar-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict (aka the Second Arab Cold War).

That said, since resolving a conflict through war is costly at many levels (especially in bad financial times), it is not surprising that the KSA is looking for new ways to get out of the quagmire they are in, and to do so without losing face. Their move is to use Russia. But why are they seeking Putin’s help and not the EU’s?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Saudi King Salman listen national anthems during their meeting in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.
(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Firstly, the EU, under the shock of Brexit, is threatened by the centrifugal and disintegrating tendencies of the separatist movements in some states (i.e., Catalonia, Scotland, Corsica, Flanders …). Thus, it is facing (1) a balkanization of the traditional European nations and a multiplication of countries in the name of democracy; (2) a rise of terrorism that fuels the rise of the Extreme Right, especially when it is related to the migrant’ crisis. Furthermore, European countries’ legacy in the region is one of conflicts and manipulation, land partitions, and resource extraction/diversion; a legacy whose consequences are still resonating today.

Secondly, Russians and Arabs share a common interest among the oil-producing countries, namely to bring order to the world oil supply, to see a rise in the price of oil, and to thereby give confidence to oil-producing countries that have been severely affected by the years of low prices. The US (being a producer, an exporter, and an importer) is not interested in any oil price revaluation because its economy is not dependent on it, and so the KSA may have turned towards Russia to resolve this issue, which may indeed be the main reason for this visit. Or, perhaps it is the trees that conceal the forest – there may be other more vital motives!

Following Obama’s ineffectiveness and Trump’s inability to keep the former allied countries around him, Arab monarchies seem to be turning to Russia. The latter responds positively to ensure its leadership as a power having a say in the MENA region. Russia has long played a significant role in the geostrategic equilibrium in the Middle East: its role in Syria, its role as an ally of Iran, its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its historic role as a protector of Orthodox Christians, as well as its role as a non-muslim world power having Islam as its second-most-important religion (as is the case for India). Russia is thus a valid interlocutor who can contribute to the stability of the region by extinguishing (or at least limiting) the foci of tension in the Middle East.

With this in mind, some Arab countries allied with Saudi Arabia have signed agreements with Russia, notably, among others, to refuel their weapons and to broaden their cooperation. King Mohamed VI of Morocco’s visit to Russia in 2016 may have given a glimpse of what Russia can achieve and could have pushed King Salman to turn towards this new-found ally. Lately, things are jostling in the Middle East at a steady pace. As a matter of facts, Trump, probably feeling that the wind was turning towards Russia, lifted the embargo on Sudan, a KSA important ally. The timing of King Salman’s visit to Moscow coinciding with the Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Morocco (on October 10-11) must be noted; a fruitful visit since a military cooperation agreement has been signed among other essential contracts (i.e., energy, trade).

Finally, the most significant “obstacle” of the KSA in the region is Iran. Despite decades of American support of the KSA combined with the long-standing economic sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic remains a solid key player in the Middle East. Since the US help to resolve the “Iranian issue” is getting nowhere, why not use new allies to come up with a “tacit” modus vivendi with Iran? A tacit agreement because an explicit and formal one between these two countries would constitute a revolution! This posture is the new trend observed in the region where everyone is “cozying up” with everyone to defend their interests. President Erdogan’s visit to Iran and their alliance with Iraq to act against Kurdistan are an example of these new global dynamics where aligning with only one power is no longer a viable strategy. This trend is a reminder of the alliances forged by different emirs and foreigners during the Crusades. History is repeating itself in the region with contemporary actors. This strategy is redistributing influences in the Middle East and is making the ties between the countries more entwined and more difficult to disentangle. In fact, it scrambles the relationships inherited from past official agreements.

The first agreement in question is the Asia Minor Agreement (aka the Sykes-Picot Agreement) in 1916 between the UK and France. It defined the sphere of European imperialist influence to which the Russian Empire acquiesced. It led later to the creation of the state of Israel and other consequences in the region that are still unquestionably a subject of current geopolitical debate (Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq).

The second agreement derives from the Yalta Conference (aka the Crimea Conference) in 1945 during which the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union concretized their vision of the post-war world order. The Yalta Conference created the bipolar world reorganization between the Western Bloc (capitalist following the US) and the Eastern Bloc (communist following the Soviet Union), leading to the Iron Curtain and the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Only some decades later, several combined events changed the global geopolitical landscape. The fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then the American lack of success in leading the world alone (especially after two wars in Iraq, the Afghanistan war, and the 2007-2008 financial crisis) are the turning points that have allowed other powers to rise and the world to become multipolar. BRICS have been gaining strength and momentum, culminating in their Summit held in China just this past September. This Summit could be labeled as a “New Yalta” Conference where each new emerging power is claiming its sphere of influence, scrambling Yalta’s legacy.

In addition to BRICS, there are many other groupings such as the OBOR, ASEAN, the SCO, the G20 and the G7 that are weaving tight webs all over the world and revealing that the risk of a confrontation between powers is becoming less and less of a reality, and more and more of an anticipated and calculated risk, often to the benefit of media. One example is Trump’s “bravado,” expressed in tweets that are aimed more (exclusively) at media consumption rather than to the resolving of conflicts. Moreover, Trump is enabling the consolidation of a multipolar world where the US is no longer the “World’s Policeman” with unlimited powers.

The world is not witnessing Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Instead, the world is witnessing the end of the American hegemony and the rise of China, Russia, India, Iran, Turkey and even a “united” EU when it comes to facing the US on some issues such as the Paris Climate Agreement and, lately, the JCPOA that crystallizes the rupture with the Yalta Agreements and is on the way to becoming a Yalta Divorce Decree. These new rising powers or “decision-making poles” as Attali calls them, led by China, are the embodiment in the field of the new Post-Yalta reality. Most are autocracies that can resolve pressing economic issues (relatively) quickly in case of crisis, as is happening nowadays (as predicted by Fukuyama). Actually, a multipolar world is emerging in which a decreasing number of democracies coexist with an increasing number of autocracies.

That said, the new KSA-Russia relationship falls within this new geopolitical and geostrategic post-Yalta trend. Seeking a common ground that benefits both countries is the aim: the KSA is buying arms from Russia and, indirectly, is most probably “buying” Russia’s help with the Iranian issue whether as an intermediary or in exchange for Russia offering less support to Iran. But where is China in this picture?

The impact of the Saudi-Russian — and ultimately and indirectly the Saudi-Iranian — rapprochement is in China’s backyard.  It has broad implications for the Middle Kingdom, for its One Belt One Road Initiative, and even for its domestic issues (i.e., the Uyghurs). China needs and must maintain harmony at home and with its neighbors to allow its ongoing development. China may well encourage and work towards achieving a particular rapprochement between the KSA and Iran to uphold some semblance of peace, security, and balance in the region, as a Middle East with fewer conflicts will bring prosperity to all; it is good for business, trade, and the economy in general for all parties involved.

Both the Dragon and the Bear are aware that the KSA and Iran will not become best friends, but, at least, a tacit agreement between them eased by Russia and China could be reached. It would be more than welcome by the whole boiling region (but not so appreciated by the US) and would act as an extinguisher of some of the Mid-Eastern hotbeds that will be transformed, in the long term, into growth hotbeds. The early signs are the contracts signed by the EU with Iran, China’s multi-million contracts in the region, and Syria’s reconstruction projects. Despite Trump being a “wild card,” for once he will be faced by the international community that will try to stop him from causing global damage and harming each country’s interests in the region… To sum up, the new post-Yalta world order has emerged and is here to stay, and all economic and political indicators show that a unique twenty-first-century geography of global powers is being redrawn.

About the Author:

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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